Everybody Liked Henry Clay

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In 1799, during a great debate in Kentucky over revising the state constitution, Clay, then a struggling young lawyer, wrote articles in the Kentucky Gazette and spoke in favor of a plan for gradual emancipation of the slaves. The operation of Ashland, however, led him to adopt the mores of his neighbors in regard to using slave labor. He does not seem to have been averse to buying small children, for in 1832 he wrote to Francis Brooke: “Could I purchase in your neighborhood a Negro boy ten or twelve years old at a reasonable price? I want such a one to ride out a Maltese Jack.” When one of his slaves, Lotty, sued for her freedom in a District of Columbia court, Clay contested the case and won it. Then he ordered that Lotty should be sent to Ashland, for it was high time for her to return to her duty, especially since “her conduct has created insubordination among her relatives here.” It is pleasant to note that in 1840 he emancipated Lotty, who had served for many years as the mammy in the Clay household.

There is every reason to believe that Clay was a kind and considerate master. The slave quarters at Ashland were built of brick and were much superior to the log cabins of the Negro quarters in the cotton region. On one occasion, before leaving Ashland for a long journey, he wrote elaborate instructions for the overseer, including an order to hire Abraham to a firm of hemp manufacturers for $120 a year, but only if “he is willing to go.” In 1842 a Quaker presented him with a petition before a political audience at Richmond, Indiana, asking him to free his slaves. In replying, Clay furnished some information about the Ashland slaves. He said that of his slaves some half dozen, because of age and infirmity, would not be able to earn a living, others were young and helpless, and still others would not accept freedom if offered them. He described his slaves as well fed and clad, sleek and hearty, civil and respectful in demeanor. By this time he owned fifty slaves, valued at !15,000.

His major-domo at Ashland, Charles, was Clay’s favorite slave and his valet whenever he went to Washington. A traveler described Charles as the perfect servant: “Charles, of whom so much has been said, is a kind of second master of household to Mr. Clay, and enjoys the greatest trust and confidence. To him can the keys of the wine-cellar be given without fear and on all occasions where help was needed, Mr. C. called for Charles. Charles brought us wine, Charles was at the door, at the carriage, at the gate, everywhere in fact, and as polite and civil as a man asking for office. … I do not believe he could be drawn from Mr. Clay except by absolute animal force, so great is his devotion to him.”

Clay’s children did not escape the effects of slavery during their childhood on the plantation. Mrs. Clay was a very indulgent mother who failed to discipline her boys with a steady hand. In 1814, while her husband was in Europe, she employed a young Dartmouth College graduate named Amos Kendall as a tutor for her children at a salary of $300 a year. In his journal, Kendall noted the evil effects of slavery on the rearing of Southern children: “May agth—Yesterday, Mrs. Clay being absent, Thomas got into a mighty rage with some of the Negroes, and threatened to and exerted all his little power to kill them.” “August 23rd—Hearing a great noise in the kitchen, I went in and found Theodore swearing in a great rage, with a knife drawn in attitude to stab one of the big Negroes.”

In his will, Clay did not directly free any of his slaves, but provided that in the event of their sale, members of a family should not be separated without their consent. Of the children of his female slaves born after January 1, 1850, females were to be freed at the age of 25, and the males at 28 years of age. They should be hired for three years before the date of their freedom, in order to provide money to send them to Liberia.

At Ashland, as in the House of Representatives, Henry Clay reached a compromise with regard to slavery. His last great public act had been to rally moderate men to a middle course that offered something to both extremes. And when he died on June 29, 1852, in Washington, far away from his beloved home, all the nation mourned his loss, knowing perhaps that the cause he fought for went with him. Even though he owned slaves, he opposed the institution “on principle and in feeling,” as Lincoln said, but “he did not perceive, as I think no wise man has perceived, how it could be at once eradicated, without producing a greater evil, even to the cause of human liberty itself.”

Life at Ashland had its moments of unhappiness. In the summer of 1833 cholera struck the Blue Grass for the first time. Nearly 500 citizens of Lexington died, including many of Clay’s friends, although all those at Ashland escaped. Clay himself apparently prescribed the remedy when some of his slaves had violent abdominal pains—twenty grains of calomel, twenty grains of rhubarb, and a mixture of salt and mustard. In letters to his friend Peter B. Porter of New York he described vividly the appearance of Lexington during the plague—stores and shops closed, and “no one moving in the streets except those concerned with the dead or sick.”